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In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered boat tours to the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge in the James River, a preview of more access to come.
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On a recent visit to Presquile, avid bird watchers spied the island's varieties of winged creatures, including an immature bald eagle.
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Plans for Presquile include reforestation of the island's grassland and a new bunkhouse for visitors.
If there's one thing Presquile National Wildlife Refuge seldom does, it's change.
But if all goes according to plan, the island in the James River will soon see about 10 times as many visitors and more accessibility for the disabled, while beginning its transition from grassland to forest.
Since 1953, the 1,329-acre island near Bermuda Hundred has served as a refuge for waterfowl, sturgeon, migratory birds, bald eagles and other wildlife. To comply with the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently drafting a 15-year comprehensive plan that will serve as a blueprint for the island's future.
Presquile's island was originally a peninsula. It was altered in the 1930s when a large section of land was removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using steam-powered bulldozers and other earth movers. Known as the Turkey Island Cutoff, this change eliminated six miles from a ship's journey up the James and turned the peninsula into an island. In 1952, the land was donated to the federal government as a wildlife refuge by owner Dr. A.D. Williams.
The proposed comprehensive plan outlines a number of goals for the island. It calls for the transition of 223 acres of grassland into forest, as well as increased data collection and monitoring of wildlife. The plan also considers increasing hunting opportunities in the future.
But perhaps the most exciting development is the expansion of the refuge's programs with the James River Association (JRA). Right now, the nonprofit hosts a variety of school-aged visitors to the island, which is accessible only by boat. In addition to organizations like the Girl Scouts of the USA, JRA also brings in groups who might not normally have the opportunity to experience nature.
Jessica Templeton, manager of JRA's Ecology School, leads students grades in five and higher on trips to Presquile and gives hands-on ecology lessons involving Virginia's Standards of Learning curriculum. Most of Templeton's excursions to the island with students are day trips, but she holds overnight stays as well. While overnight campers currently pitch tents, construction is underway for a bunkhouse that will sleep 35 in dormitory-style housing.
Once the bunkhouse is finished, JRA will lead more overnight trips, and students will have more time for activities. The bunkhouse will complement the island's recently renovated Menenak Discovery Center, which complies the standards of with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"For most of them, it's camping for the first time," says Templeton. "They say things like ‘I've never heard it so quiet,' and ‘Are there sharks in the water?'"
Presquile's caretaker is Cyrus Brame, wildlife refuge specialist with FWS. Brame cites partnerships with JRA and Virginia Commonwealth University as being integral to the refuge's recent successes and stresses that none of the plan's proposals will harm the integrity of the island.
"It's pretty exciting to see the changes that are taking place," Brame says. "Discovery and recovery is what we're focusing on. We really want kids to get out there and experience nature."
"These kids are taken 100 percent out of their environment," says Templeton. "It's challenging and scary, but it's also empowering."
The island normally sees about 200 to 300 visitors a year, but according to the plan, that will increase to 2,500. Another change Brame will oversee is the forestation of the island. With invasive species like Johnson grass and Canada thistle creeping in, Brame says it's no longer cost-effective to fight the nonindigenous plants. Planting trees targets those non-native plants.
Other projects underway include stabilizing the wetlands and restoring the Atlantic sturgeon population through the efforts of VCU's Rice Center, the university's environmental research field station. The Rice Center has made the sturgeon a priority and two years ago teamed with JRA, Vulcan Materials Co., the Fish America Foundation and Luck Stone Corp. to build an artificial spawning reef near the Turkey Island Cutoff. Using 2,000 cubic yards of rocks, the first artificial reef for the endangered species was created.
The Atlantic sturgeon, which was named an endangered species by federal officials in February, can grow up to 15 feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds. The species also has a habit of unexpectedly leaping out of the river. "When [a sturgeon] hits the water, it looks like a telephone pole has crashed," Templeton says.
Last summer, the Rice Center completed construction of a tank on Presquile so that researchers can secure the fish for tagging. After capturing a fish, researchers will transport sturgeon on stretchers to a small operations building near the water. There, they will put the fish to sleep using electronarcosis in order to tag them. Researchers are trying to determine why the James is the only place in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that the fish frequent.
"The location [on Presquile] couldn't be any more convenient," says Greg Garman, research director at the Rice Center. "The Rice Center is downriver just a bit. It makes a great deal of sense."
The sturgeon and other ongoing conservation efforts are outlined in the comprehensive plan. In August, the Fish and Wildlife Service opened the plan for public comment, and Brame says most people simply wanted more access to the island. The only resistance to the plan was its proposal to eliminate the grassland, which would affect animals like the Northern harrier.
"We didn't get much pushback," says Brame, who explained to the commenter that keeping the grassland was cost-prohibitive. "They understood that it's quite an effort to keep that field."
In addition to defining the refuge's future, the plan also will ensure continuity in Presquile's mission.
"In years past, prior to the improvement act, you might have changes in management or staffing where priorities were constantly changing," says Andy Hofmann, refuge manager with FWS. "The comprehensive plan helps us look at every program that makes up the refuge … and make sure it's consistent with the purposes for which the refuge was established."
For Templeton, that means stepping up the number of students visiting Presquile from its current volume — about 100 to 150 a year — to 1,000. She also wants to open up camping experiences for people outside of the Richmond area to include everyone in the watershed. Though it might only be a couple of days in nature, Templeton says the way students react with nature is forever changed.
"It's pretty remarkable to see the change in just one weekend," Templeton says.